In the immortal words of Arkada “The ending is paramount”.
Whether it be the conclusion to a long-form narrative or a singular self-contained story, the ending will undoubtedly help dictate one’s perspective on the piece as a whole. There are exceptions of course and it’s not as if a strong ending should be the sole focus of any work but it’s integral for any series to become a true masterpiece in my opinion. If a series leaves with a completely unsatisfactory ending, it’s going to taint my impressions of the series as a whole. And I find it hard to believe that I’m in the minority there. Regardless, the statement doesn’t have to just reflect to whole series but can be used in relation to any story as I alluded to earlier. And when it comes to “The ending is paramount”, no series highlights the positive side of that quite like Samurai Jack for me.
There’ll come a time when I’ll eventually have to tackle the divisive series finale but I’m not referring specifically to that, instead that the series, more consistently than any other I can think of, nails the final minutes of the story. There are several instances throughout the series where either I didn’t care or didn’t like the episode until the final few scenes, which converted the episode to one of my favorites of the series. That increases with just how many of my favorite episodes of this series ultimately place there for the content of the last few minutes of the episode. Trust me, I’ll analyze how all those episodes feature an expertly crafted conclusion as I slowly progress through the series but for now, I’m going to talk about the first example, “Jack and the Lava Monster”.
A crucial reason to why the ending works so well here is because of expectation subversion. The first half of the episode is dedicated entirely to building up the threat of the titular Lava Monster. The beginning of the episode focuses on Jack traveling across a grassy land (geographical descriptions are not my strong suit), with a strong emphasizes on the howling wind, creating an already tense atmosphere that rams up with the eerie bellowing of a voice meshed in with the wind insisting that Jack comes to him. The power of the Warriors voice isn’t just presented through Richard McGonagle’s vocal performance or the sound editing but also illustrated by the constant far-away shots we get in conjunction to his demands. Not only do we hear the ‘boom’ in his voice, but we’re shown in traversing a wide landscape that’s practically empty outside of several scattered trees. Through the combination of visuals & audio, the Lava Monster has established a domineering presence with only having to utter a few select words.
The transition in landscape to one burnt to ashes further cements his threatening status. Jack’s reaction to this relates the wreckage to Aku, albeit in an indirect fashion. In hindsight, this helps foreshadow Aku’s involvement in the Lava Monster’s tragic backstory but for the first viewing this connects the Lava Monster to Aku. As Jack moves forward, the episode only continues to depict the Lava Monster as a threatening and vile creature, through constant shots of the bones of fallen warriors and perilous obstacles that would feel right at home in any platformer. All this is to lead the audience to expect a traditional climatic battle with a Monster. And for a while it seems that’s what we’ll get, as his imposing physical debut is treated as a spectacle, lava explosion followed by a silhouette (kinda) reveal of his huge stature certainly feels like the beginning of a grand battle. We do witness the two collide for a little while, done with the typical finesse and split-frame stylization you’d expect from Samurai Jack, all until Jack delivers a devastating blow, and the excited reaction of the Lava Monster causes Jack to withdraw from battle.
This is the point where the subversion occurs, as the Lava Monster (henceforth to be referred to as The Warrior) refuses to fight an unwillingly opponent and instead begs for Jack’s willful participation by describing his full backstory where, as I’ve previously alluded to, is yet another victim of Aku. This is one of the highlights of the episode, mostly do to the visual shift used to detail the story, and using the Helm of Awe inspired symbol on the stone slab to transition into the sun was really clever (and also beyond my capabilities to show as it doesn’t translate well in picture form and I’m not wise in the ways of DVD ripping so you’ll have to trust me on this). Anyway what I really like about this segment is how utilizing the stone slab and hieroglyphics-esque drawings easily communicates just how long ago the Warrior’s backstory took place. Letting the presentation of story help accentuate the tragedy behind it.
Of course, this changes Jack’s tune and allows him to fight again, this time with the goal of freeing yet another victim of Aku’s tyranny. The subversion of The Warriors presentations allows his story to hold more impact on us as it’s in direct contrast to our initial expectation but that arguably isn’t even the main reason why I think the ending elevates the episode so much. The main reason I think is simply the power of simplicity. There’s no complex narrative on display here, it’s a simple story where the straightforward goal of reaching Valhalla is all that carries the episode. If the misdirection allows greater investment in The Warrior’s resolution then the simplistic nature of his desire and the quick way it’s resolved provides the momentum for this episode to finish on a high note. And it’s not so much his subsequent defeat at the hands of Jack and literally entry into Valhalla that puts the episode’s ending over, it’s the actions of Samurai Jack that makes the episode. It’s the solitary word and accompanying pictures he carves into the stone slab with The Warrior’s history, which James L. Venable sets to perhaps his most emotional score in the show, “Free”. Ending the episode off with a simplistic, empathetic action from Jack that both relates to the episodes early story-telling convention and provides a heartwarming conclusion to The Warriors story without the necessity of any spoken dialogue much like one would expect from Samurai Jack.
Outside of just how well the episode builds to an ending that sets this episode as an exemplary episode of the series, there’s plenty else to appreciate in this episode. Visually there’s a few design choices I thought were really effective. Like this one shot where Jack is colored using the same shading of the trees. I don’t know if there’s any thematic significance to this decision since it’s only for that one shot and it’s not situated in an area that makes it clear to be but I do like the visual regardless. And it does do a good job of making Jack feel immersed into the environment. I also like how there’s a clear connection established between the two landscapes Jack traverses through the flowers present in both. Just a further way to establish that the differences in landscapes were caused by some outside force, and allowing us to see the influence of the one responsible, which does relate back to the expectation subversion I mentioned previously. The final note I want to discuss is the aforementioned The Helm of Awe. Considering this episodes use of Norse Mythology, it was nice to see that they utilized a legitimate symbol, and one that compliments the Warrior so well, so well that he even christened the symbol on his shield. It’s not a perfect replication, for whatever reason it’s missing two of the eight trident arms (although I suppose the link mentioned the design wasn’t set in stone) but it’s very clear that it was the designed with The Helm of Awe in mind. Overall, there’s a lot to appreciate here, and it’s without a doubt one of the stand-outs of season one.